The article below was written as a response to an essay in First Things. I submitted it to that magazine, but they chose not to run it. And so I post it here.
I would like to apologise for the extreme infrequency of my contributions. For various reasons, including attaining a Masters degree by research, I have withdrawn from the 'blog for a long time. Also, since one of the main original purposes of this site was to bring Continuers closer together, the sacramental reunion of the G4 has made my participation less urgent, as my theological priorities are strongly ecumenical. Nonetheless, I hope this article is useful to our readers.
On another matter, I would like to commend the video address "False Choices" by Fr Hart, linked from a previous post. I have just watched it and urge you all to do the same if you have not already seen it. God bless.
In her recent article, “A paper church”, Julia Yost decries Pope Francis' leadership for forcing orthodox Catholics to engage in an elitist hermeneutics that explains away rather than explaining his statements. While St John Paul's catechetical adventures on the topic of capital punishment also come in for criticism, the rot that has purportedly set in is seen to have done so only “[i]n recent decades”. One might summarise her article as the heartfelt cry, “We can't become like those awful Anglicans!”
Too late, Julia, too late. In the need to interpret some teachings in minimalist fashion, or with heavy qualifications, or as temporary mistakes, or as conditioned by circumstances, Roman Catholics have long anticipated Anglo-Catholics.
Now, to be fair, I do have sympathy for her argument that the Catholic Faith should not be reduced to a “paper religion”, which would imply that the real, authoritative teachings are an esoteric, subtle refinement of official statements that are misleading if taken at their surface-meaning. And I fully accept that Pope Francis' “magisterial” musings and symbolical actions are sometimes, to put it gently, unnecessarily confusing.
However, despite these sympathies, and my firm belief that the average Christian does understand the essentials of the Faith to a sufficient degree not to be “superficial” in their confession, we all need to face reality. And the reality is that, not only among the hoi polloi but among their teachers in the Church, there have often been grave errors, misinterpretations, and unbalanced emphases, including some related to official teaching, partly because its wording can lend itself to misunderstanding on occasion. To put it another way, while God protects the church from outright error in dogma, he does not protect it from all the other foibles related to human documents and interpretation.
Indeed, this problem has become only more obvious since Vatican II among Roman Catholics (RCs), whether for traditionalists who heavily criticise the Council, “conservatives” who affirm it via the “hermeneutic of continuity”, or “liberals” who embrace the purported “spirit of Vatican II” and see the documents themselves as open-ended pointers to a trajectory of revolution. However, the problem for RCs clearly predates this Council, as I will show later. But let us first deal with the more recent examples.
The original article exhibits the belief that subtle, esoteric re-interpretations of past Church teaching were not the Roman way until Pope Francis, or, to a lesser extent, Pope John Paul II. But this is clearly contrary to fact. Ever since Vatican II, any attempt at a “hermeneutic of continuity” has required very subtle distinctions and re-interpretations indeed.
For some of the most popular examples of these apparent(?) discontinuities, the teachings on torture, slavery, usury and capital punishment, I leave the reader to other authors' discussions. Instead, let us just consider ecumenical dialogue, joint prayer with non-RCs, and the possibility of salvation outside the Communion of Rome.
For Pope Pius IX (in Mortalium Animos), the efforts of Protestants to “treat with the Roman church ... upon the basis of equality of rights and as equals” is something that Catholics “cannot in any way adhere to or grant aid to”. He also taught that: "… one who supports those who hold these theories and attempt to realise them, is altogether abandoning the divinely revealed religion." Whereas Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio describes as “[m]ost valuable” “meetings of the two sides … where each can treat with the other on an equal footing”.
An instruction addressed to the Catholics of England by Cardinal Allen in a letter of 1592 said that praying with Protestants was “forbidden by God’s own eternal law” and “by no means lawful or dispensable”, a judgement he noted was confirmed to him by Pope Clement VIII. On the other hand, the same document of Vatican II mentioned above says that such prayer is “desirable”.
From the Council of Florence we have this: "The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church ... can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the Devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with her". At Vatican II the “separated churches” are “means of salvation”.
I will leave it to RCs to argue about whether each of these apparent discontinuities can be salvaged from contradiction by clever exegesis, or whether the resolution lies in simply admitting that the either the earlier or the later statements must be abandoned as non-infallible statements that also happened to be simply wrong. In either case, what is required of anyone arguing in good faith is frank admission both that there is apparent contradiction and that the only way out is via subtle distinctions regarding meaning or authority that will seem esoteric and surprising to ordinary folk.
But this problem did not start with Vatican II. Unam Sanctum (US) is a papal bull considered by many RCs to be infallible in its concluding definition: “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Note the word “absolutely”. Quite apart from inconsistency with statements of Vatican II, this definition suffers from a syllogistic reductio ad absurdum, if taken at face value. The first premise below derives clearly from the common man's understanding of subjection to the chief religious teacher, the second is a logical corollary of the definition of US.
1. To disobey the Pope's commands or contradict his teachings is not to be subject to him.
2. One can not ever, under any circumstances, be saved (in a state of grace) if one is not subject to the Pope.
3. Thus, to disobey the Pope's commands or dispute his teachings in any way is to be unsaved, ungraced, i.e., outside Christ and his Church, and thus is always objectively evil.
But both before and after Vatican I, let alone Vatican II, RC theologians have consistently taught that there can be occasions when disobeying papal commands or contradicting (or withholding assent to) a papal teaching can be permissible and, in fact, virtuous. Among the clergy and theologians of old we have Lapide, Pope Pius IX, Pope Adrian II, Pope Paul IV1, Cano, Prieras, Cajetan, de Victoria, Suarez, and Bellarmine, et al. But in more recent times we have Bishop Christopher Butler and the Pope Emeritus himself, among many others.
So, it appears that subjection to the Pope is considered only conditionally or relatively necessary to salvation in terms of informed, long-standing RC theology, but that US says it is absolutely necessary. “Absolutely” and “relatively” are contradictory by definition. Now, wooden literalism is hardly ever wise but an “interpretation” that takes a word to mean its exact opposite is, at the very least, subtle and esoteric. I suspect ordinary RCs may have always had trouble squaring that circle, if it had been brought to their attention. It is perhaps fortunate that for much of the Middle Ages such interacting decrees and ideas probably remained an irrelevant “paper religion” to the average pious peasant.2
In all of these cases one might of course appeal to the “development” Newman so relied upon to defend Roman Catholicism. But at some point one risks justly receiving that famous reply from the classic comedy, The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Can there be a disconnect between educated believers and the rest in areas of ecclesial life outside explicit doctrine as well? Interestingly, Ms Yost doesn't actually deny the existence of superstitions among ordinary RCs. Instead, she accepts their reality and, surprisingly, says only positive things about them. But not all popular superstitions are to be winked at. Idolatry and obsession with material relics is spiritually degrading and enervating, as it takes the Christian's focus away from the true centre of his faith, the living Christ. That this was once a real problem for RCs needs no confirmation from Protestant authors, the evidence being easily found in Erasmus and Colet, for example.
But it was not just a case of popular abuses. Aquinas (S.T. P3, Q25, A3&4), in teaching that earned the imprimatur and nihil obstat, said that the worship of latreia was due to images of Christ and the Cross. But the Seventh Ecumenical Council says that only the honour of proskunesis is permissible to any image, including the Cross. Whatever gloss is put on the former kind of statement by apologists, it is undeniable that the effect on the common believer of such justification filtering down was deeply problematic. That the official dogma of the RCC is and was orthodox I do not deny. That the everyday religion of its members always matched this dogma during the late Middle Ages I do deny. The disconnect was real, and the doctrinal truth in this matter often remained a paper religion to the masses.
What is my point then? That the Catholic Faith has always been expressed in a way that must seem Pickwickian to ordinary Christians? That many magisterial acts and words can not be taken at face value or may even need to be rejected? That all doctrines are justifiably up for grabs due to past inconsistencies? No, yes and no.
The Creeds are genuinely understandable affirmations, though even here there are unavoidable metaphors and mysteries.3 And beyond the Creeds, there is much firm, consistent and clear teaching that is entitled to our deepest trust and certitude.
Nevertheless, some teaching that carries the label of infallibility for RCs will need to be accorded assent with qualifications that, while able to be exegeted as non-contradictory, show that the dogma as originally written was undeniably prone to misunderstanding. Teachings that were highly authoritative but not infallibly proposed nor universally consistent from earliest times may simply have to be admitted to be errors.
This will require a dogmatic theology that appears too critical or even minimalist to some. The fear that such admissions will give too much room to those who wish to conform the Church to the world, the flesh and the devil is perfectly understandable. After all, isn’t one of the favourite arguments of some “liberals” that none of the teachings on sexual morality they dislike has been or can be definitively taught?4 But the truth is that the best defence against such infidelity within will not come from unreflective approaches to dogmatic texts any more than it will come from unrestrained ultramontanism. Unfortunately, “liberal” criticisms of the “creeping infallibilism” coming from Rome have, even from a traditionalist viewpoint, validity.5 This creep not only undercuts present orthodox resistance to error, it has often been sending the Vatican in precisely the wrong direction for decades in response to the heterodox. To put it another way, this is a defensiveness that has now left the faithful defenceless.6
Where is safety to be found then, whether for the scholar or for the “vulgar”? Not in papal absolutism, not in a “magisterium of the moment”, not in textual rigidity or mere institutional loyalty. These facts have become increasingly clear but, taken as a whole, they will perhaps not please either the conservative or traditionalist RC. On what basis can they resist the genuine compromisers of the Faith, as opposed to faithful if speculative theology that challenges?
St John Paul showed the way forward in one of his most important and symbolical actions. In the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis he definitively ruled against the priestly ordination of women not by an act of the Extraordinary Magisterium, but by pointing to the “constant and universal Tradition of the Church”, as has been noted by Cardinal Ladaria on behalf of the CDF.
The broad, living stream of the Tradition, with its mutually interpreting currents and eddies across time and space is where all must look. The whole Church needs the whole Church, including the breadth of its history. Where the consensus is universal and clear, those rejecting it from within the Church need not be argued with nor need they be subject to new canonical or doctrinal statements, as if everything was uncertain till such “clarifications”. No, instead, the Church should simply have the courage to say “You have undeniably rejected the Faith, you have cut yourself off from the Church. The verdict is manifest, your attempts to obscure certainty have failed. Goodbye.”
And such a process would in fact be aided by appeal to the constant and continued teaching of the Eastern Orthodox and others. An ecumenical Catholicism that recognises, not just in subtextual actions7 but in official teaching, that those outside canonical boundaries may have been put there unjustly, such that they never really exited the Una Sancta spiritually, is a Catholicism that can accept a genuine scope for varied opinions in non-essentials, access resources deep and wide, correct internal errors and fight the good fight.8
So, as we have noted above, instead of issuing new decrees or looking for such, Rome and RCs could simply appeal to universal consensus, East and West, to prove that all who wish to overturn traditional moral teaching are manifestly heretical and self-excommunicate, and withdraw all communion from them without further ado. The same approach could be applied to those who push for the ordination of priestesses, and hence clarify that ecumenical Catholicism reveals the pointlessness of Rome or the Orthodox continuing their discussions with the Anglican Communion and the need to concentrate instead on the faithful remnant that is Continuing Anglicanism.
But benefits would also accrue in terms of dealing with the past. A Roman Church burdened with the history of a previous centuries-long magisterial consensus on the moral soundness of ‘coercion and torture for Jesus’ could then, for example, contentedly note the fact that the Eastern Orthodox part of the Church did not create an apologetics or doctrinal position to justify such acts as the Latin Church did, thus defeating the appearance of universality, even temporarily.
It could also recognise that the Anglican rejection of any suggestion that the Sacrifice of Christ was plural or repeated was a justifiable reaction to certain theories of the Mass that hypothesised a new, distinct immolation of Christ in the Eucharist, while noting that such theories have died away and that Rome also stresses that there is only one redemptive Sacrifice. As it is, Julia Yost’s article shows no appreciation of this historical context, and no understanding of the other evidence in the earliest Anglican formularies that gave not just Newman but many others legitimate reason to interpret Anglican teaching as supporting Eucharistic Sacrifice. Other of the Thirty Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and official apologetical texts from the Elizabethan period taken together affirm that the Eucharist sacramentally signifies the Sacrifice of the Cross and conveys its effects, which is exactly what is sufficient to make it a sacrifice, according to Aquinas.9
In any case, there is no getting around the fact that ecclesial teaching, whether Anglican, Eastern or Roman will sometimes contain statements that, while they can be parsed in conformity with truth or relativised as to authority, are problematic and leave plenty of room for doubt and misunderstanding. Admitting this rather than circling the wagons or throwing stones in glass houses is surely the best option. Theology can be difficult, including dogmatic theology. Just accept it.
1 See his Bull, Cum ex Apostolatus Officio, which teaches that a Pope who has deviated from the Faith can be contradicted.“In assessing Our duty and the situation now prevailing, We have been weighed upon by the thought that a matter of this kind is so grave and so dangerous [to the Faith] that the Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of God and our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fullness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted if he be found to have deviated from the Faith.”
2 In case the reader thinks that a literal interpretation was never taken seriously by anyone, or that nothing else in the magisterial tradition could support such papal positivism to the ordinary follower, I give just two of many possible examples which would manifestly support such absolutism:
“[W]here there is holiness there cannot be disagreement with the Pope” [Address to the Priests of the Apostolic Union, Nov. 18, 1912, Pope Pius X]
“Thus, it is an absolute necessity for the simple faithful to submit in mind and heart to their own pastors, and for the latter to submit with them to the Head and Supreme Pastor.” [Epistola Tua, Pope Leo XIII]
3 Obviously, for example, “light from light” does not refer to photons, “ascended into heaven” could be misunderstood as a long astronomical journey, and what “everlasting life” means in detail is confessedly unknown (1 John 3:2).
4 E.g.: “There is virtual theological unanimity that concrete moral norms do not pertain to the church’s infallible teaching competence.” R.A. McCormick, S.J., in Readings in Moral Theology No.6: Dissent in the Church, Curran & McCormick (eds), p.426, 1988.
5 Giving the liberal Romans their due is a necessary part of honestly dealing with the crisis. Unless the real problems that existed before Vatican II in the RCC are admitted – against which RCs understandably reacted and for the purpose of dealing with the Second Vatican Council was called – those who wish to throw out the baby with the bathwater will succeed in portraying the orthodox to the ordinary faithful as dishonest or spiritually blind.
It shouldn’t be a a great strain, for example, for any RC to accept that the official papal condemnation of the statement that “[i]t is contrary to the will of the Spirit that heretics be burned” in Exsurge domine was an objectively evil act that undermined the RCC’s moral credibility. Or that Pope Pius IX forcing the Melkite Patriarch to place his head under his foot in retaliation for qualifying his acceptance of Vatican I was the very kind of leadership against which Christ warned (cf. Matthew 20:25f, 2 Corinthians 1:24). Likewise, it shouldn’t be difficult for the orthodox to admit that sometimes the critics have helped the Church to correct itself.
Admitting old errors or misplaced emphases, along with an overarching weakness for authoritarianism, will allow the orthodox to be taken seriously. Otherwise, in the face of an idealisation of the Latin Church’s past, merely quoting or citing the more egregious examples will be enough to discredit Catholicism itself for an honest enquirer. Also, unless the reasons for modern over-reaction are understood, the orthodox will not be able to communicate effectively to persuadable liberals: those who are perhaps not critical enough of innovation, but are not revolutionary in spirit or intent either.
6 While the CDF in its Instructions on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian did try to carve out a space for dissent by theologians from non-infallible teaching, it was a non-public, minimal space that appeared to have nothing to do with ordinary Catholics. If this is not an elitist approach to hermeneutics, what is? One cannot help but ask the question, if a mediaeval theologian or ordinary RC had vociferously objected to Inquisitorial torture as plainly wicked and anti-Christian, would they have sinned according to these standards?
7 E.g., recognitions by Rome of Saints who were outside the communion of Rome, such as St Meletius of Antioch, St Isaac the Syrian and St Gregory of Narek.
8 Some will respond angrily to such suggestions with the cry “extra ecclesiam nulla salus!” or start scoffing at the manifest absurdity of Anglican “Branch Theory”. I have dealt with these objections here. Basically, to believe that the Church must be both one and visible does not require belief that its integral unity is perfectly visible. Especially since it almost never is.
9 Knowledge of the historical and theological context reveals that the significance of the plural terms in Article XXXI relates to an aversion to any concept of repeated or supplementary sacrifice, an aversion clearly referred to in the same article where it says “there is none other satisfaction for sin” than the Sacrifice of the Cross. The same point is specifically reiterated in Anglican Canon Law in the next century where there is an affirmation of the term “altar” for the “Lord's Table” but a denial Christ is “again really sacrificed” (cf. Hebrews 6:6, 10:10), which Rome was thought to teach. Also, the very same Articles affirm that the Eucharist is a sacrament of Christians' redemption by the Cross (XXVIII), while defining a sacrament as an “effectual sign” in a previous Article (XXV), a theological term of art meaning that it effects what it signifies. So, the Articles on their own teach that the Eucharist signifies Christ's sacrifice and conveys its effects. The authorised apologist for the Church of England at the English Reformation, Bishop Jewell, also accepted openly in those apologetics that the Sacrament was an “image” of the One Sacrifice. This combination of sacramental signification and conveyance of the sacrifice in its effects is, as noted above, exactly what Aquinas says makes it a sacrifice (S.T. P3, Q83, A1).
Similarly, the service is termed a “sacrifice of praise” in the classical Anglican liturgy (a phrase taken straight from the Gregorian Canon) in the same sentence in which intercession is made for “the remission of sins and all other benefits” of Christ's Passion for the “whole Church”. So, Newman was perfectly justified in interpreting the Anglican formularies as teaching a doctrine of Eucharistic Sacrifice, albeit one rejecting any repetition of the Cross, any renewal of Christ's actual suffering and death. More to the point, this was not some weird innovation of his, but a reflection of the explicit teaching on the Eucharist of many Anglican bishops and theologians before him, as one discovers in Tract 81. That he later renounced this eirenic approach does not change the facts outlined above.